The Second Sex – Plot Overview

Revolutionary and incendiary, The Second Sex is
one of the earliest attempts to confront human history from a feminist
perspective. It won de Beauvoir many admirers and just as many detractors. Today,
many regard this massive and meticulously researched masterwork
as not only as pillar of feminist thought but of twentieth-century
philosophy in general.
De Beauvoir’s primary thesis is that men fundamentally
oppress women by characterizing them, on every level, as the Other,
defined exclusively in opposition to men. Man occupies the role
of the self, or subject; woman is the object, the other. He is essential,
absolute, and transcendent. She is inessential, incomplete, and
mutilated. He extends out into the world to impose his will on it,
whereas woman is doomed to immanence, or inwardness. He creates,
acts, invents; she waits for him to save her. This distinction is
the basis of all de Beauvoir’s later arguments.
De Beauvoir states that while it is natural for humans
to understand themselves in opposition to others, this process is
flawed when applied to the genders. In defining woman exclusively
as Other, man is effectively denying her humanity.

The Second Sex chronicles de Beauvoir’s
effort to locate the source of these profoundly imbalanced gender
roles. In Book I, entitled “Facts and Myths,” she asks how “female
humans” come to occupy a subordinate position in society. To answer
this question—and to better understand her own identity—de Beauvoir
first turns to biology, psychoanalysis, and historical materialism.
These disciplines reveal indisputable “essential” differences between
men and women but provide no justification for woman’s inferiority.
They all take woman’s inferior “destiny” for granted.
She then moves to history to trace the emergence of male
superiority in society, from nomadic hunter-gatherers through the
French Revolution and contemporary times. Here she finds ample examples
of female subordination, but again, no persuasive justification for
them. History, she argues, is not an immutable “fact,” but a reflection
of certain attitudes, preconceptions, and injustices.
De Beauvoir next discusses various mythical representations
of women and demonstrates how these myths have imprinted human consciousness,
often to the disservice of women. De Beauvoir hopes to debunk the
persistent myth of the “eternal feminine” by showing that it arose
from male discomfort with the fact of his own birth. Throughout
history, maternity has been both worshipped and reviled: the mother
both brings life and heralds death. These mysterious operations
get projected onto the woman, who is transformed into a symbol of
“life” and in the process is robbed of all individuality. To illustrate
the prevalence of these myths, de Beauvoir studies the portrayal
of women by five modern writers. In the end of this section, de
Beauvoir examines the impact of these myths on individual experience.
She concludes that the “eternal feminine” fiction is reinforced
by biology, psychoanalysis, history, and literature.
De Beauvoir insists on the impossibility of comparing
the “character” of men and women without considering the immense
differences in their situation, and in Book II, entitled “Woman’s
Life Today,” she turns to the concrete realities of this situation.
She traces female development through its formative stages: childhood, youth,
and sexual initiation. Her goal is to prove that women are not born “feminine”
but shaped by a thousand external processes. She shows how, at each
stage of her upbringing, a girl is conditioned into accepting passivity,
dependence, repetition, and inwardness. Every force in society conspires
to deprive her of subjectivity and flatten her into an object. Denied
the possibility of independent work or creative fulfillment, the
woman must accept a dissatisfying life of housework, childbearing,
and sexual slavishness.
Having brought the woman to adulthood, de Beauvoir analyzes the
various “situations,” or roles, the adult woman inhabits. The bourgeois
woman performs three major functions: wife, mother, and entertainer.
No matter how illustrious the woman’s household may be, these roles
inevitably lead to immanence, incompleteness, and profound frustration.
Even those who accept a less conventional place in society—as a
prostitute or courtesan, for example—must submit to imperatives
defined by the male. De Beauvoir also reflects on the trauma of
old age. When a woman loses her reproductive capacity, she loses
her primary purpose and therefore her identity. In the final chapter
of this section, “Woman’s Situation and Character,” de Beauvoir
reiterates the controversial claim that woman’s situation is not a
result of her character. Rather, her character is a result of her
situation. Her mediocrity, complacency, lack of accomplishment,
laziness, passivity—all these qualities are the consequences of
her subordination, not the cause.
In “Justifications,” de Beauvoir studies some of the ways
that women reinforce their own dependency. Narcissists, women in
love, and mystics all embrace their immanence by drowning selfhood
in an external object—whether it be the mirror, a lover, or God. Throughout
the book, de Beauvoir mentions such instances of females being complicit
in their Otherness, particularly with regard to marriage. The difficulty
of breaking free from “femininity”—of sacrificing security and comfort
for some ill-conceived notion of “equality”—induces many women to
accept the usual unfulfilling roles of wife and mother. From the
very beginning of her discussion, de Beauvoir identifies the economic
underpinnings of female subordination—and the economic roots of
woman’s liberation. Only in work can she achieve autonomy. If woman
can support herself, she can also achieve a form of liberation.
In the concluding chapters of The Second Sex, de
Beauvoir discusses the logistical hurdles woman faces in pursuing
this goal.